A revelation in prints

October 05, 2002

BROWSING THROUGH an international print fair in New York several years ago, Susan Dackerman paused over a 16th century engraving personifying the virtue Patience. What struck the Baltimore Museum of Art curator was neither the image nor its inscription but the jeweled colors applied to the print. It was the fact of the color. Ms. Dackerman, a specialist in northern Renaissance prints, asked herself: Why had I never before seen or even expected to see engravings that were colored?

That question sparked a six-year search for an answer, an inquiry that challenged the prevailing historical view that "to color prints is to spoil them."

Her research has produced a new body of work in an area of art history that has been plumbed time and again. It forms the basis of a new exhibit, "Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color," that opens tomorrow at the BMA.

The interest of this exhibit goes beyond its reliance on art, science and history to show that the hand-coloring of prints occurred contemporaneously with their creation, not centuries later, as previously believed. Why should any BMA patron care about Ms. Dackerman's discovery? Because it represents original scholarship, and the BMA's interest in innovative, groundbreaking research should be encouraged.

There's no discounting the impact that blockbuster imports like the Monet show and the crowd-pleasing Dr. Seuss exhibit of a few years back can have on a museum's membership and finances. But more and more museums these days are looking for curators with doctoral degrees, and their intellectual curiosity should not be restricted to articles in scholarly journals. Original scholarship generates a different kind of buzz in the museum world. It increases the public profile of an institution like the BMA at home and abroad. And it should instill confidence in collectors that gifts to the museum will receive serious treatment.

Susan Dackerman's initial interest in that print at the New York show in 1996 led her to libraries, collections and museums. Over time, she discovered that no one had analyzed colored, Renaissance-era prints in a systematic way. The museum encouraged her to pursue her findings. Grants and fellowships helped her realize the fruits of her labor.

A collaboration with conservator Thomas Primeau led to a dating of the pigments, her discovery of the contemporary nature of the hand-coloring and a search for these prints across Europe, many of which were locked away in museum drawers.

The result is a bounty of color on the BMA's walls. The exhibit spans 200 years of prints, a trove of vibrantly colored images loaned from collections and museums in eight countries. It features a replica of a medieval print workshop, a high-tech analysis of the paints' vintage and the American premiere of a 12-foot high image, The Triumphal Arch of Emperor Maximilian I, compiled from 192 colored prints by the 16th century artist Albrecht DM-|rer.

Francesca Consagra, the curator of prints at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri, recognized the importance of the exhibit and fought to book it for a run in February. "So many of us in the field thought the hand coloring was done in the 19th century. ... It's a groundbreaking exhibition that focuses on something that has been ignored in the past," she says.

Many of these prints were created as gifts for cardinals and popes, imbued with richly hued, jeweled tones. And yet, for centuries, critics denigrated hand-colored prints as adulterated forms of their stark, black-and-white images.

Tomorrow, and through January, Baltimore patrons will have the opportunity to decide for themselves.

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